Ja Morant has already been locked in as the #2 pick in the draft for the Grizzlies, as he was the consensus best prospect after Zion.
Morant emerged from obscurity with a monster sophomore year for Murray State. He showed promise as a hidden gem as a freshman, and elevated his game to a new level with monster scoring and assist numbers, as he is the first NCAA player to ever average 20 points and 10 assists per game. He complemented this with enough SportsCenter top 10 dunks to pass the smell test as an elite prospect.
What Makes Ja Special?
Morant has an intersection of athleticism and passing vision that is rarely seen. And most of the examples in his tier of elite at both did very well in the NBA: LeBron James, Chris Paul, John Wall, and Ben Simmons stand out as the only examples in recent memory. Russell Westbrook is more athletic and eventually proved that he sees the floor, but his vision was a question mark coming out of UCLA. De’Aaron Fox is slightly behind in both.
Vision and athleticism are two high leverage qualities. The prospects who have both are extremely rare, and they tend to become great pros.
This is not to say that Ja will necessarily be as good as the aforementioned players. He has a slight frame at 6’3″ and his defense has plenty of room for improvement. And while he is a solid shooter making 36% 3P and 81% FT as a 19 year old sophomore, there is some risk that he does not shoot well enough to excel as a little guy.
But given his monster strengths and no glaring weaknesses, he likely will be good and has upside to be a star.
Where Would He Go Last Year?
This is a more interesting discussion than this season, as below Zion and above everybody else is too wide of a range to say much about his value.
Last season there was a clear top 3 of Luka, JJJ, and Ayton who were all superior prospects. Ja would fit into the next tier of #4-10 with a big cluster of very good prospects. The most similar player to him in that cluster is Trae Young.
I ranked Trae #15 last year which was too over the top contrarian given his outlier strengths. In retrospect, #5-10 range was where he should have rightfully gone. Incidentally freshman Trae is a good comp for sophomore Ja, as they have similarly slight frames, monster offensive roles, and age (sophomore Ja is just 1 month older than freshman Trae):
They had near identical output offensively. Trae was a much better shooter, making more FT’s at 86% vs 81% and with over twice the 3PA rate. And he had the tougher schedule as the average defense he faced was 6.8 pts per 100 better than Ja’s opposition– not trivial, but not enough to put Ja’s #’s in the dumpster.
Ja’s overall offensive output was slightly better, so even once strength of schedule is factored in Trae’s offensive advantage isn’t better by a major margin. Morant in part compensates for his lesser shot by superior ability to get to the rim and finish.
Now let’s talk about the other areas where Ja is superior
- Physical profile. He is 1″ taller, 3″ longer, and much more athletic. This immediately shows in his superior rebounds and blocks
- Defense. Ja has a reputation for being a lackadaisical defensive player, but Trae’s freshman year defense was all time bad
- Translation to better competition. Trae slipped to 102.8 ORTG in 15 games top 50 kenpom competition, Ja hardly missed a beat with 113.8 ORTG in his 5 games against the top 50. Better athletes are safer to translate up.
- Team impact– even though Morant’s Murray State had a much weaker cast + preseason expectation, they finished with nearly identical kenpom rankings.
- As a freshman, Morant played efficiently next to a ball dominant fringe prospect in Jonathan Stark. This means he can likely pair well with ball dominant NBA stars, which is still a question mark for Trae.
Collectively, these advantages are very significant. As exciting as Trae’s shooting was, Morant is a decent shooter himself and his superior physical tools, team success, translatability, and defense clearly weigh heavier.
Given all of this, I found this poll surprising:
Draft twitter hasn’t truly embraced Morant the way they embraced Trae, even though it’s difficult to come up with any objective analysis where Trae rates better strictly based on pre-draft info. You would have to place an irrational premium on shooting to rate Trae higher.
Some people believe strength of schedule also boosts Trae’s profile, but this is incorrect. Ja performed better against top defenses, and elite athletes tend to have less risk of translating to better competition. Morant would have obviously been great for any major conference team.
Trae has improved his value with a good rookie year such that he now may be worth more than Morant. But based on pre-draft, Morant is clearly the better prospect.
I would have ranked Ja top 5 in last year’s loaded draft for sure, and probably #4 as his big upside is too tantalizing to pass.
From every angle of analysis, there are loads of things to like about Morant and not much to dislike.
He is so young and unheralded prior to college, that it feels excessive to call him a guaranteed star. But it’s hard to imagine what his fail case would look like. Jeff Teague is a reasonable floor comp, and that is fairly pessimistic as Morant is a clearly better passer than Teague and there isn’t any area where Teague stands out as superior.
Morant will likely peak as an above average starter, and has clear star upside. There is nobody quite like him in the NBA. He doesn’t quite have Russell Westbrook’s athleticism, or Steve Nash’s craft + IQ, but he has a nice blend of both and it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s the mean average of both players.
Ultimately Morant has more downside than a typical #1 pick, but he is a solid #2 overall in most drafts. As much as it hurts to miss out on Zion, the Grizzlies are nevertheless walking away with a great consolation prize.